'Sticks and Bones': Theater Review

Sticks and Bones Production Still - H 2014
Monique Carboni

Sticks and Bones Production Still - H 2014

Apple pie never tasted so tart

Bill Pullman, Holly Hunter and Ben Schnetzer star in David Rabe's 1971 play about the toxic effect on an American sitcom family of their son's return from Vietnam

Watching the New Group's unsettling revival of David Rabe's Sticks and Bones, it's impossible not to flinch at the realization of how confronting this 1971 play must have been to American audiences when it premiered, before official U.S. involvement in Vietnam had even ended. This scalding work scores direct hits on the stubborn obliviousness of the folks back home to the realities of that dirtiest of 20th century wars. The playwright channels raw anger and despair into his depiction of PTSD, and the cluelessness of family, church and community to deal with it in an era before that condition even had a clinical name.

It's also no mystery why the still-disturbing play, a top Tony winner in 1972, is so seldom revived. Truth is, it's a hard sit. Despite Scott Elliott's insidiously effective production and riveting performances from Bill Pullman and Holly Hunter, the writing remains very much of its time.

While many of the notable novels and movies about Vietnam came along at a distance of a decade or more, allowing time for the initial outrage to make way for a bigger-picture perspective, Rabe returned from the conflict in 1967 and began shortly thereafter to process his experience in stage dramas. The best of these remain 1972's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, which balances horror with sorrow; and 1976's Streamers, which goes beyond the nightmare of war to consider more nuanced questions of personal and political freedom.

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Sticks and Bones has the vitality of youthful indignation but less structural discipline and maturity. Its vein of blackest absurdist comedy and cryptic dialogue suggests Rabe might have been influenced by the early work of Edward Albee, notably The Zoo Story and The American Dream. By lifting his characters' names directly from the quintessential sitcom clan on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Rabe made an explicit target of the archetypal apple-pie American family institution, with its lingering 1950s naivety and its unapologetic racism hatched out of a hostile distrust of "otherness." But while such satirical bluntness was no doubt provocative back then, sitcoms have been deconstructed and subversively skewered every which way in the more cynical decades since, which softens the sting.

Still, as a time-capsule theatrical experience alone, the play is absorbing. Pullman and Hunter play the seemingly benign mom and dad Ozzie and Harriet, who live with their eternally chipper, guitar-strumming son Ricky (Raviv Ullman) in middle-class suburban comfort. Designer Derek McLane's two-level set looks lifted right out of TV Land, with its carpeted stairs, swing-door kitchen entrance, '60s-modern furniture and kitschy feature walls. When Ozzie gets a phone call to say that the Army is bringing eldest son David (Ben Schnetzer) home from Vietnam, it almost seems they had momentarily forgotten their absent offspring.

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David's return — accompanied by a black Sergeant Major (Morocco Omari), whose gruff, physically intimidating presence introduces an alien element into the white-bread home — doesn't go well. David was blinded in combat, but his refusal to believe that these people are his family or this is his childhood home points to a deeper dissociation. Perky Harriet thinks just about any problem can be solved with something tasty from the icebox, while Ozzie is unnerved as much by something within himself as by his son's uncomfortable behavior. Ricky, who seems to subsist exclusively on chocolate fudge and soda, acts as if everything is peachy.

David is physically haunted by memories of his time with Zung (Nadia Gan), a beautiful Vietnamese woman who gave him comfort. And while he hasn't shamed the family by bringing back an "enemy" bride like so many other soldiers did, their disgust at his revelation of the relationship is just one manifestation of the ugly hypocrisy masked behind their virtuous Christian facade. The parents' attempt to have their friendly local priest, Father Donald (Richard Chamberlain), intervene to help David renounce his sin only widens the gap.

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Pullman has the key role here, as it's Ozzie who is most unhinged by the father-son disconnect of David's return. The actor squirms and seethes beneath his character's forced bravado as he reveals a giant chip on his shoulder over having remained in the U.S. working on military vehicles during World War II, instead of shipping out on active duty. Ozzie's meandering reveries about his youthful glory days as a track athlete point to a festering crisis of manhood triggered by having a damaged soldier under the same roof. Pullman plays his steady unraveling with tremendous focus, as he comes to face the emptiness of his existence and turns from that agonizing realization toward violence.

Harriet also has trouble maintaining her composure once it becomes clear that neither time nor any amount of cakes she bakes will cure what ails David. Hunter is a compelling physical presence. With her tiny, bird-like body and clenched jaw twitching in a constant bustle of futile activity, she gives the part more range than it arguably covers on paper. Harriet is a pathetic figure in her role of dutiful homemaker and blithe optimist. But beneath the frozen calm of her smiles, she also embodies the cold, closed-mindedness of a hermetic society. That same dichotomy is gradually revealed in Ricky, whose folks songs and "Oh, boy!" enthusiasm are at odds with his dark side of chilling indifference.

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Schnetzer (recently onscreen in Pride and The Riot Club) paradoxically has the more one-dimensional role, but he locates the pathos in David's refusal to let go of Zung's memory or to accept the lies of the people who claim to care about him. Chamberlain, appearing on a New York stage for the first time in 15 years, seems a tad stilted as the representative of an institution that espouses guidance and understanding while demonstrating only the most selective compassion.

The family and church, of course, are a microcosm of America, and Rabe writes with the fervor of someone burned by his experience as a soldier but perhaps even more so by the incomprehension that greeted returning Vietnam vets from all sides in the early '70s. If the play is dated and somewhat distancing in its unsubtle approach, the emotion behind it remains intense.

Cast: Holly Hunter, Bill Pullman, Ben Schnetzer, Richard Chamberlain, Raviv Ullman, Nadia Gan, Morocco Omari

Director: Scott Elliott

Playwright: David Rabe

Set designer: Derek McLane

Costume designer: Susan Hilferty

Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski

Music & sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen

Projection designer: Olivia Sebesky

Presented by the New Group